What is a machine or to machine? Definition and examples

Ancient machine - thousands of years ago
An Ancient Egyptian depiction of machines used in rope making. We have been using machines for many thousands of years. (Image: Wikipedia)

The meaning of the word machine can vary, depending on its context. It can be a piece of equipment, i.e., a device, that uses electricity to do a specific kind of work. Some machines use gasoline, natural gas, diesel, or another fuel.

The term may also refer to a large and extremely well-controlled organization or system. If I say, for example: “The party’s publicity machine is backing John Smith,” I mean the political party’s publicity department is extremely efficient and effective.

As a verb

When machine is a verb, it can mean to make something. For example, somebody might say: “That material was machined in a factory in Thailand.”

The verb can also mean to work on something, such as a block of metal, and shape it into a finished product. In this context, to machine can mean to cut, drill, grind, slice, or bend into a desired shape. If something is easy to machine, we say it has a high machinability.

Here are some definitions of the term that the en.oxforddictionaries.com provides:

“1.1 An apparatus using mechanical power and having several parts, each with a definite function and together performing a particular task. 1.2 Any device that transmits a force or directs its application.”

“1.3 An efficient and well-organized group of powerful people. 1.4 A person who acts with the mechanical efficiency of a machine (‘comedians are more than just laugh machines’).

Machine 2
Some machines today are extremely sophisticated devices. (Image: Pixabay)

Machine – mechanical device

A machine is a mechanical structure that uses electricity or some other form of power source to apply forces and control movement. It does this to perform a specific action.

People, animals, natural forces, chemicals, electricity, or heat can drive machines. Early machines were mechanical devices that either humans or animals drove.

Modern devices have complex systems comprising mechanisms, control components, and structural elements. They include interfaces for convenient use.

A car is a machine, as is an airplane. Boats are also machines. Therefore, we can say that we use machines for transporting people, animals, and goods.

Home and office appliances, agricultural devices, robots, computers, and factory automation systems are also machines. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of different types of machines.

Machine transportation
We use machines extensively for transportation today. (Images: Pixabay)

Etymology of machine

Etymology is the study of where words come from, i.e., their origins and history, and how their meanings have evolved.

The term ‘machine‘ with the meaning ‘structure of any kind’ first appeared in the English language in the 1540s. It came from the Middle French word ‘machine,’ which meant a ‘device or contrivance.’ The Middle French word came from the Latin word ‘machina,’ which meant ‘engine, military machine, device, instrument, or trick.’

In the 1670s, the word began to acquire its modern meaning, i.e., ‘a device made of moving parts for applying mechanical power.’

According to etymonline.com, from the 1670s onward: “It gradually came to be applied to an apparatus that works without the strength or skill of the workman.”